Re-Reading Dr BR Ambedkar’s Earliest Paper On Caste 100 Years Later
By Dr K S Sharma
04 June, 2016
It is hundred years since Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) wrote, CASTES IN INDIA: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, a Paper he presented on 9th May 1916 at an Anthropology Seminar at Columbia University. That was one of his earliest significant works, a scholarly work ; written by the scholar when he was 25, much before he became a politician. In fact , he was totally reluctant to be a politician at the time despite pleadings by some leaders of the freedom movement. This was regarded as an important, thorough though brief Thesis of 47 paras. Some of the most quoted, cited even in recent past, ideas and lines of Ambedkar are from this thesis .
Ambedkar himself published his famous work, Annihilation of Caste, in 1936, and its third edition in 1944, in which he included this Thesis of 1916 thus basically upholding it, even subsequently.
While reviewing some ideas on caste till then prevalent, he comes to some definite ideas . Ambedkar concludes his thesis with the following lines indicating his scientific method, his conviction, and open-mindedness as an young scholar:
“The primary object of the paper is to indicate what I regard to be the right path of investigation, with a view to arrive at a serviceable truth. We must, however, guard against approaching the subject with a bias. Sentiment must be outlawed from the domain of science and things should be judged from an objective standpoint. For myself I shall find as much pleasure in a positive destruction of my own ideology, as in a rational disagreement on a topic, which, notwithstanding many learned disquisitions, is likely to remain controversial forever. To conclude, while I am ambitious to advance a Theory of Caste, if it can be shown to be untenable I shall be equally willing to give it up.” (emphases added throughout unless otherwise indicated.)
Several of his famous ideas on caste are rooted and found in this Paper. We are not making a comprehensive review of the Paper here. It is educative and refreshing to remember a few points , which is presently our main aim here. Also because certain important ideas in this Thesis are not much remembered by some Ambedkarites. Rather they are forgotten or distorted. Views that are basically different from his ideas stated in this Paper are often spread as his own ideas. They often wallow in populist, vulgar and vulgarized depiction of social phenomena, if only as part of debased vote-bank politics. And they are not based on facts of history or society. They harp more on sentiment than on sensible treatment. They are more keen on exploiting the caste and sub-caste divide than on seeking serviceable truth, for uniting people against injustice. The re-reading should help a more objective and purposive analysis.
For example , among his well-known and oft-quoted views we find :
“ This critical evaluation of the various characteristics of Caste leave no doubt that prohibition, or rather the absence of intermarriage—endogamy, to be concise—is the only one that can be called the essence of Caste when rightly understood….
“ 31………As for myself I do not feel puzzled by the Origin of Caste in India for, as I have established before, endogamy is the only characteristic of Caste and when I say Origin of Caste I mean The Origin of the Mechanism for Endogamy.”
“ ….To say that individuals make up society is trivial; society is always composed of classes. It may be an exaggeration to assert the theory of class-conflict, but the existence of definite classes in a society is a fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind, our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste, for class and caste, so to say, are next door neighbours, and it is only a span that separates the two. A Caste is an Enclosed Class.”
“ This sub-division of a society is quite natural. But the unnatural thing about these sub-divisions is that they have lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. The question is: were they compelled to close their doors and become endogamous, or did they close them of their own accord? I submit that there is a double line of answer: Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them. ….”
“The two questions of spread and of origin of caste are not separated”, he says : “ This is because of the common belief among scholars that the caste system has either been imposed upon the docile population of India by a law-giver as a divine dispensation, or that it has grown according to some law of social growth peculiar to the Indian people.”
As is well-known, On 25 December 1927, the book of Manusmriti was publicly burnt with sandalwood by Ambedkar and his colleagues.
The incident was recorded thus : At nine o'clock that night the Manusmriti was placed on a pyre, in a specially dug pit, in front of the pandal, and was ceremoniously burnt at the hands of Sahasrabuddhe, the Brahmin friend of Dr. Ambedkar. This explosive deed rocked all the charlatans, pundits, Acharyas and Shankaracharyas in India. In the pandal, it was reported, there was only one photo, and that was of Gandhiji.
It was connected with Mahad Satyagraha of 19-20 March 1927, asserting the rights of dalits to use common waterbodies; Chavdar Tank of Mahad town was chosen for the agitation. The burning of Manusmriti was also in Mahad , as a sequel to the previous struggle. It was obviously a symbolic act , a protest, but was part of an earthly struggle for drinking water. However, his views on Manu and related issues were scientific, based on history, rather than sentiments.This was how, in his 1916 Paper, he deals with the “ghost” Manu:
“ I first propose to handle the law-giver of India. Every country has its law-giver, who arises as an incarnation (avatar) in times of emergency to set right a sinning humanity and give it the laws of justice and morality. Manu, the law-giver of India, if he did exist, was certainly an audacious person. If the story that he gave the law of caste be credited, then Manu must have been a dare-devil fellow….. It is unimaginable that the law of caste was given. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Manu could not have outlived his law, for what is that class that can submit to be degraded to the status of brutes by the pen of a man, and suffer him to raise another class to the pinnacle? …..I may seem hard on Manu, but I am sure my force is not strong enough to kill his ghost. He lives like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to, and I am afraid will yet live long….”
“ One thing I want to impress upon you is that Manu did not give the law of Caste and that he could not do so. Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and therefore philosophised about it, but certainly he did not and could not ordain the present order of Hindu Society. His work ended with the codification of existing caste rules and the preaching of Caste Dharma.”
Then he goes on to say the same about role of Brahmins. In fact he says, “it is incorrect in thought and malicious in intent” :
“ The spread and growth of the Caste system is too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual or of a class. Similar in argument is the theory that the Brahmins created the Caste. After what I have said regarding Manu, I need hardly say anything more, except to point out that it is incorrect in thought and malicious in intent. The Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle. They may have helped the process by their glib philosophy, but they certainly could not have pushed their scheme beyond their own confines. To fashion society after one's own pattern! How glorious! How hard! “
Those who upheld varna system claimed its basis in ancient sastras. He refutes that idea also.
“ There is a strong belief in the mind of orthodox Hindus that the Hindu Society was somehow moulded into the framework of the Caste System and that it is an organization consciously created by the Shastras. Not only does this belief exist, but it is being justified on the ground that it cannot but be good, because it is ordained by the Shastras and the Shastras cannot be wrong. I have urged so much on the adverse side of this attitude, not because the religious sanctity is grounded on scientific basis, nor to help those reformers who are preaching against it. Preaching did not make the caste system; neither will it unmake it. My aim is to show the falsity of the attitude that has exalted religious sanction to the position of a scientific explanation.”
He stresses scientific attitude and rejects idealist positions that claim religious sanction and assert that one or the other scriptures are decisive. No amount of preaching by the priests can create it, he says and adds , no amount of preaching by the reformer can unmake it! His approach is based on material facts, materialist outlook. The Indian Constitution, they say, is the new Sastra, the new Bhagavat Gita. It bans untouchability, as also several other evil practices, prescribes punishments too, but to no avail. It was preceded by centuries of preaching by social reformers from Basava to those of medieval era, from Phule, Narayana Guru and Periyar to the latest Guru, of the modern era. Preachings not only by social reformers but also political reformers of modern times from Gandhi to the latest leader. And now came this new manu-dharma in the form of the Indian Constitution. 66 years after it was proclaimed and invoked, and despite so many laws and rules, all these reforms and all these preachings could not and did not eliminate caste discrimination , not to speak of eradicating casteism. Thus Ambedkar, the scholar, in this Paper of 1916, pointedly and in a clear-headed manner proclaims : Preaching did not make the caste system; neither will it unmake it.
Then what was the origin of caste? He writes:
“ ……Such attempts at reform, however, have aroused a great deal of controversy regarding its origin, as to whether it is due to the conscious command of a Supreme Authority, or is an unconscious growth in the life of a human society under peculiar circumstances. Those who hold the latter view will, I hope, find some food for thought in the standpoint adopted in this paper.”
In an earlier para he wrote: “44) …. Take India as a whole with its various communities designated by the various creeds to which they owe allegiance, to wit, the Hindus, Mohammedans, Jews, Christians and Parsis. Now, barring the Hindus, the rest within themselves are non-caste communities. But with respect to each other they are castes.”
Here he as a sociologist indicates how caste was a peculiar phenomenon in (British) India, which is by and large co-terminus with South Asia today. When we probe a little, we find many things : Even today, we can see in many villages how people of these religions other than Hindus are identified as “another caste” rather than as (merely) of a different religion. In particular , Muslims and Christians are treated as another caste in view of conversions of recent past. One can find some in the same kith and kin being converted as Christians , while others remaining as Hindus; there are marriages too among them, caste being the same; and post-marriage, there is informal reconversion too. Post-conversion too, they continue with customs they inherited from their past as Hindus and often with an added imprint of their caste. Christians of one caste do not normally marry Christians of another caste. That is, the real identification is more with caste rather than as Christians. That is why Ambedkar stressed endogamy.
The same is found, less commonly and less clearly , rather more subtly, among some “lower” communities of Muslims also. For instance, a Khan would not normally marry a Quereshi. There were more than 100 castes, yes castes, listed among muslims of UP , Maharashtra etc. a few decades ago. Reservations were extended and implemented to some of these castes among muslims as backward communities in all the states of South as also in Bengal (OBC A and B), despite some legal hitches. Mulayam’s Samajvadi Party promised reservations for muslims . There are demands in other states too from sections of muslims . The Uttar Pradesh-based Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) announced to launch a protest rally in Mumbai on April 26, 2015 against the BJP-led Maharashtra government for its decisions such as beef ban and scrapping five per cent reservation to Muslims. Thus caste is very much seen also beyond Hinduism, beyond Brahminism, and beyond Manu. If we see caste as merely linked to Hinduism, Brahminism or Manu, we in fact under-estimate its deep and vicious role in society and polity.
Impressions that BJP, unlike some ‘secular’ parties, is opposed to reservations on the basis of religion are there, as statements by their leaders indicate. But things are changing thanks to vote-bank politics. It is the same case with beef-eating that is linked with some communities. BJP Union Minister from North-east, Kiren Rijju defended and decalared he eats beef and none can stop it. The BJP of Kerala said they recognize that beef-eating is widely prevalent in some communities and they would not come in the way. Whether they clamour against beef or allow it, both are related to vote-bank politics.
THE HINDU dated December 17, 2015 reported : “Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on Wednesday informed the Assembly that the government will not issue a notification to reinstate 5% reservation in educational institutes for backward castes in Muslim community, since no legal framework exists to support it. The Chief Minister’s remark came after the State’s Minority Affairs Minister Eknath Khadse had assured the House that the government was positive on reservation demands of Muslim community.
“A year ago, the BJP-led State government had issued an ordinance ensuring reservations for both Maratha and Muslim communities in educational institutes and jobs. The ordinance was later challenged in the Bombay High Court, which put a stay on it. While the educational reservation for backward castes in Muslim community is cleared by the court, the issue of Maratha reservation is still pending.”
That is how rabid and provocative statements, vote-bank politics and opportunist stances go together even with respect to BJP. Things are simply not black and white. Even while it is alleged by some that BJP is against reservations, BJP spokespersons went on record to say that there is a “valid ground” for reservations in private sector also and it is noteworthy. In fact , they said the Congress and UPA did nothing in that direction, whereas BJP is seeking to create a favorable atmosphere for that. After all, it is the B team of India’s ruling classes.
There are sections of anti-brahmin movements , particularly from Dravidian political forces , who weaved racist theories of Arya Vs Dravida, that Aryans created castes etc. Some Leftists also entertained such ideas, consciously or otherwise. By now it is evident how some Dravidian forces are indulging in brutal and brazen oppression of dalits in Tamilnadu , while others like of DMK and AIADMK are winking at it; and with sheer opportunism of vote bank politics, roped them into their alliances and they became Ministers etc. And all this in a state that was said to be a citadel of self-respect movement.
PMK of Dr Ramdas has been indulging in anti-dalit politics brazenly , unashamedly. There has been worst violence too at many places in Tamilnadu. What was the origin of Vanniars’ PMK ?
An old report indicates : All 15 of the DMK legislators elected in the party's first poll outing in 1957, and 35 of the 50 party MLAs in 1962 were Vanniars. Why, even as late as 1989, when the PMK stayed away and the DMK won the post-MGR assembly elections, nearly two-thirds of the party legislators were returned from the 'Vanniar belt'. …. Ramadoss played the Vanniar atma-gouravam card against the DMK in the Lok Sabha polls of 1998 and won four of the five seats it contested, and contributed greatly to the AIADMK-BJP alliance. Then onwards DMK and AIADMK vied with each other to woo PMK, despite its brazen anti-dalit stance. Such is competitive opportunism. PMK general secretary and party ideologue 'Dalit' Ezhilmalai, a Minister in Vajpayee cabinet, was finally eased out and he decided to join the AIADMK.” (http://www.rediff.com/election/1999/aug/30pmk.htm)
Dalit or Ambedkarite parties of Tamilnadu, like PT and VCK openly allied with DMK and AIADMK who in turn allied with brazenly casteist, and anti-dalit PMK on the one hand and communal BJP on the other hand. Many of them mixed up racist theories of caste with Ambedkarism too.
Obviously, they were schooled in dravidian politics of DMK, more so during turbulent 1950s and 1960s that led to DMK becoming a ruling party. And that very belt later became a stronghold of PMK. Obviously something is wrong with their ideological grooming. Some of the Ambedkarites have been hobnobbing with such forces, they speak of bahujan unity, and Mayavati installs statues from South. And allied with Manuvadis of BJP and shared power. Now Narayana Guru in Kerala is sought to be roped in by BJP, aided by his followers.
What was Ambedkar’s view of these race theories about caste? In this Paper of 1916 , Ambedkar says :
“46)…… But nothing can be farther from the truth, and Dr. Ketkar is correct when he insists that "All the princes whether they belonged to the so-called Aryan race, or the so-called Dravidian race, were Aryas. Whether a tribe or a family was racially Aryan or Dravidian was a question which never troubled the people of India, until foreign scholars came in and began to draw the line. The colour of the skin had long ceased to be a matter of importance" (History of Caste, p. 82). Again, they have mistaken mere descriptions for explanation and fought over them as though they were theories of origin. There are occupational, religious etc., castes, it is true, but it is by no means an explanation of the origin of Caste.”
But theories continue to be weaved mixing up caste and race, and that while claiming to be votaries of Ambedkar. Let us conclude with Ambedkar’s message in the 1916 Paper : Sentiment must be outlawed from the domain of science and things should be judged from an objective standpoint.
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Dr KS Sharma (born 1934), a Retired Professor of Law based at Hubli, Karnataka, has been a leader of working class for over 45 years now, focused on unorganized labor, and as Founder-President of Karnataka State Govt. Dailywage Employees Federation, successfully organized one lakh dailywagers of Govt of Karnataka who got regularized after 30 years of struggle that included street battles and legal battles going upto Supreme Court. He is a great teacher, poet, writer, dramatist, literary critic, columnist, publisher, orator, and an activist-social scientist who was a Vice-President of ISSA , Indian Social Science Academy, for some time. Post-retirement, he did his doctorate on Indian State : From Marxian Perspective. He is the Founder President of a group of Institutions including an ITI, Institute of Naturopathy and Yoga, Dr. Da Ra Bendre (Jnana Peeth Awardee) Research Institute ( which edited and published about 150 books by Bendre), Indian Institute of Marxist Theory and Practice, FMRRC- Fluorosis Mitigation Research and Resource Centre all located in Vishwa Shrama Chetana campus, Hubli. He may be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org